Life and Death in the Third Reich

Harvard University Press  2008

This well documented work is noteworthy for the author’s extensive use of rare letters and diary entries collected from both Jews and Germans. It is one of the few sociohistorical studies of the Holocaust that attempts to convey the plight of ordinary Germans who, Fritzsche maintains, were often conflicted about the persecution of their Jewish neighbors and classmates. The book’s thesis is that the German populace was entranced by the offer of renewed pride and sense of identity emphasized daily by the Nazi regime. The security and strength derived from Aryan ideals and aspirations served to counter the humiliation experienced in the aftermath of the First World War and the perceived national degradation stemming from the provisions of the Versaille Treaty. The author argues that the racist ideology and genocidal intentions of the regime were to some extent secondary to the infusions of racial and national pride provided by Hitler and Goebbels. 

This is a questionable thesis and it will be left to the reader to weigh this analysis of the needs, yearnings, and behavior of ordinary Germans. The absence of reference to the views of Daniel Goldhagen is striking given his sharply different conclusions regarding the wartime attitudes of the German populace. Fritzsche’s work paints a more benign portrait of Germans, with few facts on the counterview, namely, the centrality of sadism and genocidal zeal of the citizenry. Ample eyewitness accounts support this assessment of the period. 

It would be a mistake to discount Fritzsche’s emphasis on the appeal of ideology for the insecure, disenfranchised, and impoverished. It surely plays a key role in our current international conflict with Islamic jihadists. Nevertheless, to underestimate the pleasure that vast numbers of Germans obtained from participating in and/or witnessing the destruction of the Jews would represent a serious intellectual oversight. 

This is an important addition to the literature but will likely find itself limited to a specialist readership. Index, notes.

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